BMCR 2000.08.08

Eusebius’ Life of Constantine. Introduction, translation and commentary

, , , Life of Constantine. Clarendon ancient history series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. 1 online resource (xiv, 395 pages) : illustrations, map.. ISBN 1423767667

Eusebius’ Vita Constantini (henceforth VC) can be considered the starting point for the study of all aspects of the reign of the fourth century Roman emperor Constantine I., known to history as Constantine the Great. Cameron and Hall’s translation, based on the text of Winkelmann, supersedes the nineteenth century English translation of S. Bagster which was later revised by E.C. Richardson; the latter version is still in print and has served the last several generations of English-speaking scholars of Late Antiquity as the standard translation.1

In their preface, Cameron and Hall (henceforth C/H) note that the purpose of their translation is to make the VC available to both scholars and students and to make use of the large body of modern scholarship on the reign of Constantine and, particularly, that material which treats matters discussed in the Bishop’s biography of the emperor. The translation of C/H is divided into three major sections: 1) a scholarly introduction (pp. 1-53), 2) the actual translation (pp. 54-182), and 3) a scholarly commentary on the translation (pp. 183-350). Additionally, C/H include a very useful bibliography of secondary sources upon which the commentary rests, and a table of abbreviations. The authors also have provided a set of illustrations.

C/H’s introduction to the translation is thorough: in addition to a general discussion of the VC and its place in the totality of works by Eusebius of Caesarea, the authors also deal with many of the problems with which scholars have been concerned during the twentieth century. Of special interest is their treatment of the date of composition of the VC (pp. 9-12), Eusebius’ use of sources of all sorts (pp. 13-24), and the literary character of the VC (pp. 27-34). In their discussions, both authors rely on the most recent scholarship and, when necessary, review the appropriate secondary literature of the last several centuries. The discussion of the date of the composition of the VC, for example, is based on work by Barnes, Cameron herself, and Drake,2 whereas the section on Eusebius’ use of sources is rooted in Hall’s own treatment of the material.3 C/H’s discussion of Eusebius’ use of imperial documents in the VC is especially worthy of note because it takes one of the most complicated and disputed issues and explains it in a clear fashion, not only providing a thorough review of all the important secondary literature on the topic but also making the technical aspects of the issue understandable even to the neophyte. C/H’s discussion of the plan and literary character of the VC is unique because they place Eusebius’ work in its proper relation to ancient biography.

From the introduction, it is now necessary to turn to the translation. C/H say that Eusebius’ Greek “… is often obscure and equally pretentious; we have not tried to gild the lily but to stay close to the original in the hope of conveying its very characteristic tone”(p. vi). Indeed, they succeed in doing just that; they have rendered Winkelmann’s text of Eusebius literally. Where the text of Eusebius is obscure, the text of their translation is equally obscure. It is, however, a pleasant experience to be able to read the VC from beginning to end without worrying about the exact meaning of the text since one can safely rely on C/H’s translation as giving an accurate representation of the content and flavor of Eusebius’ narrative.

The actual text of Eusebius’ VC is easy to distinguish from any primary source materials that the Bishop of Caesarea may have used because C/H have published any such documents in italics and this makes them stand out from the running text of the VC. Because the authors have keyed the entire translation to Winkelmann’s text by giving his pagination in square brackets, one can compare the text of their translation with the Greek text with ease.

The third section of C/H’a translation consists of a commentary on the actual text (pp. 183-385), the purpose of which is “… to explain and elucidate the text; it could of course have been very much more detailed” (p. vi). Where it was deemed necessary, illustrations were included; for example, in their discussion of the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem ( VC 3.25ff; pp. 273ff), they include a floor plan of the cathedral, something which makes their discussion easier to follow. Although the authors in most cases have succeeded in providing a full treatment of issues raised by the text of Eusebius and have cited the most important pieces of secondary literature on a particular matter, there are at least two instances that caught this reviewer’s attention in which this was not the case. These cases include C/H’s discussion of Eusebius’ version of Constantine’s vision before the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge ( VC 1.28ff; pp. 204ff) and Eusebius’ account of the first civil war between Constantine and Licinius ( VC 2.6ff; pp. 233). In the case of Constantine’s vision, although C/H provide a good overview of the vision from a literary and historical perspective, they downplay the value of Lactantius’ account of the vision (44.5; pp. 204, 209) and choose to ignore some of the recent scholarly attempts to explain Constantine’s vision in scientific terms.4 Similarly, in their brief discussion of the first civil war between Constantine and Licinius, the authors follow chronological orthodoxy by stating that the first civil war was fought in 316 without giving their readers any detail about the basis of the dating or treating any of the alternative approaches to the matter.5

In conclusion, this translation is a good introduction to the VC of Eusebius for the specialist and the generalist alike. To those users who know no Greek, this book is a godsend; for the specialist, it provides the reader with easy access to the most recent literature on the various issues dealt with in the VC. In a word, the book is a real gem.


1. F. Winkelmann, Über das Leben des Kaisers Konstantins, GCS Eusebius 1/1, (Berlin, 1975, rev. 1992); S. Bagster, The Life of Constantine by Eusebius, together with the Oration of Constantine to the Assembly of the Saints and the Oration of Eusebius in Praise of Constantine, revised translation with prolegomena and notes by E.C. Richardson, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2/1 (New York, 1890), 405ff.

2. E.g., T. D. Barnes, “Panegyric, History and Historiography in Eusebius’ Life of Constantine,” in R. Williams, ed., The Making of Orthodoxy: Essays in Honour of Henry Chadwick (Cambridge, 1989), 94ff; idem, “The Two Drafts of Eusebius’ Vita Constantini,” in T.D. Barnes, From Eusebius to Augustine, (Aldershot, 1994), xii; idem, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Mass., 1981), 264ff; Averil Cameron, “Eusebius’ Vita Constantini and the Construction of Constantine,” in Simon Swain and M. Edwards, edd., Portraits: Biographical Representations in the Greek and Latin Literature of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1997), 145ff; and H.A. Drake, “What Eusebius Knew: the Genesis of the Vita Constantini,” CP 83(1988), 20ff.

3. E.g., S.G. Hall, “The Use of Earlier Eusebian Material in the Vita Constantini, I.58-59,” Studia Patristica, 24 (1993), 96ff idem; “Eusebian and Other Sources in the Vita Constantini, I,” in Logos: Festschrift für Luise Abramowski (Berlin, 1993), 239ff.

4. E.g., Michael DiMaio, Jörn Zeuge, and Natalia Zotov, ” Ambiguitas Constantiniana : The Caeleste Signum Dei of Constantine the Great,” Byzantion 58 (1988) 333-60.

5. Traditionally the first civil war between Constantine I and Licinius I has been dated to 314 (e.g., Otto Seeck, Regesten der Kaiser und Päpste für die Jahre 311 bis 476 n. Chr. [Stuttgart 1919], 162). Relying on coinage for his argument, Patrick Bruun proposed 316 as the probable date for the first campaign ( The Constantinian Coinage of Arelate, [Helsinki, 1953] 15-21; Studies in Constantinian Chronology, [New York, 1961], 10-22; RIC VII [966], 66, n. 1, and 76). Barnes has accepted his position ( “Lactantius and Constantine,” JRS, 63 [1973], 29-46 at 36-38; idem., Constantine and Eusebius, [Cambridge, Mass., 1982], 65-67; idem, New Empire of Diocletian and Constantine, [Cambridge, Mass., 1982], 72-73). R. Andreotti has argued that the first civil war was fought in two phases, in 314 and 316 (“Licinius [Valerius Licinianus],” in Dizionario Epigrafico IV.1 [1959], 1001 ff., esp. 1004; idem,”Recenti contributi alla cronologia costantiniana,” Latomus 23 (1964), 548-52). Andreotti’s appproach to the problem was taken up by Michael DiMaio, Jörn Zeuge, and Jane Bethune: ” Proelium Cibalense et Proelium Campi Ardiensis : The First Civil War of Constantine I and Licinius I,” Ancient World 21 (1990) 67-91. Hans A. Pohlsander challenged their approach and defended the 316 dating: “The Date of the Bellum Cibalense : A Reexamination,” Ancient World 25 (1995), 89-101.